By Greg Carlson
Just as “Aftersun” explores the contours of a father-daughter relationship, Joanna Hogg’s “The Eternal Daughter” laser-focuses on the particulars of a parent-child bond. In this case, Hogg’s longtime friend, collaborator, and all-around force of nature Tilda Swinton plays both mother and daughter in a film linked to Hogg’s “Souvenir” series as a kind of spiritual/spirited sequel.
In an interview with David Sims in which the notion of the “Hogg-verse” is proposed, the filmmaker indicates that she opted to use “Souvenir” monikers Julie and Rosalind “late in [the] development” of the movie. “The Eternal Daughter” can be viewed independently from the pair of stories starring Swinton’s own daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, but the in-world connections provide an extra layer of enjoyment.
“The Eternal Daughter” is, among other things, a ghost story. The fog-shrouded onetime manor/current hotel where the now middle-aged Julie takes mom Rosalind for both birthday celebration and potential film research is a spectral presence situated in the Welsh countryside. We discover that Rosalind spent time there years ago when it belonged to the family of her aunt as a private residence.
Like the Pevensie siblings in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” young Rosalind was sheltered in the manse with other relatives during World War II. As the elder shares recollections with Julie (who often records the audio without her mother’s knowledge or consent), Hogg asks the viewer to pay close attention to the two women, simultaneously intensifying the bond between them and outlining their stark differences.
Despite the seriousness of mortality, history, and things now lost, Hogg and Swinton never take themselves too seriously. “The Eternal Daughter” is often hilarious, the laughs in balance with the disconcerting feelings of dread brought on by nervous dogs, odd sounds in the night, empty hallways, and the driver who warns of a figure glimpsed standing in a window.
Our first strong indication of a sense of Hogg’s playful fun – outside Swinton’s terrific double role – is the scene introducing the sour receptionist played by Carly-Sophia Davies. The check-in exchange, in which Davies’s unnamed clerk gives Julie a hard time about specific room availability even though every room in the entire joint appears vacant, is just one absurdly funny exchange.
Both Davies and Swinton deadpan their way through several low-stakes irritations and indignities – the inn is so short-staffed, the insolent character played by Davies also waits on guests at mealtime. We wouldn’t be surprised to learn she is also preparing the food in the kitchen.
Hogg is a master at hinting at unseen worlds. Each night, Julie watches the clerk in and around the car of a visitor (perhaps a lover?). We share Julie’s voyeuristic thrill, even as the act of looking humanizes and enhances someone we know so little about.
A couple other people pop in and out – there’s a great scene with the groundskeeper played by Joseph Mydell and another diversion with the unwanted visit of a relative (Crispin Buxton) – but the heart of the tale takes place in the conversations shared between Julie and Rosalind, brought to life so exquisitely by one of our finest screen performers.
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